Any bio of Al Pacino or Meryl Streep usually includes the following assessment: regarded by many as the greatest actor/actress of his/her generation. But to hell with the qualifiers. Pacino and Streep are the best ever, period. No hedge. Him: ''The Godfather,'' ''Scarface,'' ''Heat,'' ''Serpico;'' her: ''The Deer Hunter,'' ''Kramer vs. Kramer,'' ''Sophie's Choice,'' ''The Hours.'' Between them, more than 60 films. No overlap. Yes, incredibly, Pacino, 63, and Streep, 54, have never worked together. Until now.
The occasion is appropriately monumental: HBO's $60 million, six-hour ''Angels in America.'' Mike Nichols helms Tony Kushner's adaptation of his own play about love in the AIDS-plagued time of Reagan. Airing in two parts on Dec. 7 and Dec. 14, Angels is epic but intimate, surreal yet painfully real, and defies pithy plot synopsis (see the sidebar for a stab at it). The performances by its two towering icons are tidy summaries of what they do best. Pacino's Roy Cohn -- the McCarthyite legal eagle who railroaded Ethel Rosenberg into the death chamber -- is a textured portrait of corrosive power and self-deception worthy of his Michael Corleone and Tony Montana. Streep reaffirms her standing as cinema's canniest chameleon: She plays an angel, an aged rabbi, a Mormon mother, and, during her scenes with Pacino, Rosenberg's ghost. Thunder cracks, lightning flashes: The encounter between the two characters, and two legends, terrifies and electrifies.
Kind of like the experience of interviewing Pacino and Streep together. Wearing blue-tinted glasses, her hair cut short and cruel (for her villainous role in a remake of ''The Manchurian Candidate''), Streep is feisty, loquacious, and revealing. Pacino looks like he was just unfolded from a musty suitcase. In rumpled black, with tufts of unkempt beard sprouting from his face (for his role as Shylock in a movie version of ''The Merchant of Venice''), the Godfather is effusive, genial, more guarded. Introduced to each other 27 years ago by Pacino's friend and Streep's then boyfriend, the late actor John Cazale (''Dog Day Afternoon''), they share a cozy rapport. ''Cappuccino, Al Pacino?'' Streep giggles, pouring coffee. ''How many times have you heard that one?'' ''Thirty,'' Pacino quips. ''And that's just today.'' Then they sit and look up. More thunder and lightning.
''Having Al and Meryl together, in these films, is like driving a Ferrari on the autobahn. There are no speed limits. There is no end to what can be done, to where they can go.'' -- ''Angels'' director Mike Nichols
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY You've known each other for most of your professional lives.
MERYL STREEP Al was the first famous person I ever met. Except for Richard Nixon.
EW How do they compare?
STREEP Al was not as scary.
AL PACINO I was looser.
STREEP I remember that night when I met you and made you dinner --
PACINO Our mutual friend was John Cazale, someone who I had known since I was a teenager. That was our initial connection. He said, ''Al, you've got to see this girl. This is it.'' [Streep shrieks with laughter.] I never heard anyone talk about someone like that. I certainly had not heard John talk like that. They were doing a play together in the park